Caring for Your Newborn Foster Kitten: A Comprehensive Guide

two newborn kittens being held gently in an adult's hands

Perhaps you’ve found yourself with a furry little family of abandoned newborn kittens, with no mother cat in sight. Or maybe you’ve volunteered to help your local shelter by caring for a litter of orphaned, newly born kittens.

Fostering newborn kittens is a demanding, but thoroughly rewarding, endeavor that saves young lives. Before you take on this responsibility, however, it’s important to make sure that you are prepared to care for abandoned kittens—and if you find a litter of kittens, that they are actually abandoned.

Are They Abandoned Kittens? Before You Take Them in, Make Sure

If you see a litter of kittens in your neighborhood with no mother cat present, resist the temptation to immediately take them home. Mother cats often leave their kittens, sometimes for hours, to search for nourishment or hide. Many shelters advise waiting 10-12 hours for a mother cat to return before considering the kittens abandoned.

The condition of the kittens and their nest can be another indicator of whether they are being cared for by a mother cat. Check to make sure that: 

  • The kittens don’t appear to be ill or underfed, or crying or cold 
  • The kittens and their nest are relatively clean 

Preparing to Foster Newborn Kittens

The first step in terms of how to care for newborn kittens is to have proper supplies on hand for the transition to your home. Here are some things you’ll need for your new arrival (or arrivals):

  • A quiet, warm room, separate from other furry family members 
  • A cat carrier or large cardboard box, lined with soft blankets or towels, where the kittens can rest 
  • A warm water bottle or heating pad (set on low) wrapped in a towel to place in the bottom of the cat carrier or under the cardboard box 
  • Nursing bottles 
  • Kitten milk replacer 
  • Shallow food and water bowls 
  • Small litter boxes  
  • Unscented clay litter (NOT clumping litter) 
  • Scratching post and toys 
  • Baby wipes and washcloths  
  • Cotton balls and Q-Tips® 
  • Baby rectal thermometer and room thermometer

Because abandoned neonatal kittens require special care, some shelters and rescue groups have experienced volunteers who are specially trained to work with “bottle babies”—kittens under four weeks old that need to be bottle fed every 2-6 hours. Many also provide information or training, or “kitten kits” for first-time neonatal kitten caregivers.  

Problems Associated With Newborn Kittens

By caring for abandoned kittens, you are filling the role of a mother cat. While the newborn phase lasts only a few weeks, during those weeks, motherhood is a 24-hour-a-day job. And your orphaned kittens will rely on you for everything they need.

Newborn kittens spend about 90 percent of their time snuggled against their mother for warmth, and 10 percent of their time nursing. So, warmth is as important for newborn kittens as nourishment. New kittens depend on their mother’s warmth, because they are not yet able to maintain their own body temperature. If their body temperature drops, their blood sugar level also drops. This can result in hypoglycemia, which can lead to coma and death if body temperature and blood sugar levels are not restored.

For this reason, keeping newborn kittens warm is a priority. Make sure that you place a heating pad on low setting, along one side (on the outside) and partially under the cat carrier or box where the kittens will be sleeping. Do not put the heating pad under the entire carrier or box, so that the kittens can move away if the heating pad becomes too warm. 

What to Feed Newborn Kittens Without a Mother

Proper feeding of orphaned kittens, especially those without a mother to provide their foundational nutrition, is essential to their healthy development.

At birth, a kitten weighs about three-and-a-half ounces. If fed properly, they will gain as much as a half-ounce per day and double their birth weight in the first week. By the time they are three weeks old, a properly nourished kitten will triple their birth weight.  

How to Feed Newborn Kittens

Without available mother’s milk, what do you feed newborn kittens? During the first three weeks, kittens receive all their nutrition through fluids, and providing enough of that hydration is essential.

You can purchase milk replacer for kittens, or kitten formula, in easy-to-mix powder form or premixed in cans, to nourish newborn kittens during this time. You will need to serve it lukewarm and feed it slowly through an eye dropper, syringe or pet nursing bottle.

Can Kittens Drink Regular Milk?

Newborn kittens are delicate and giving them cow’s milk or goat’s milk puts them at risk for diarrhea and digestive upset. Kitten formula is the best way to make sure they get the nutrition they need, in a form that their tiny digestive systems will easily tolerate.

Bottle Feeding Newborn Kittens

To feed a newborn kitten, hold the kitten upright, not cradled like you would bottle feed a human baby. Put the nipple of the eyedropper, syringe or bottle into the kitten’s mouth and tip it upright so that the kitten’s head and neck are slightly elevated. Feed the kitten slowly, keeping the flow of liquid steady to keep the kitten from ingesting air.

How Much Do Newborn Kittens Eat? 

Most kittens stop eating when they’re full. However, a general guideline for feeding bottle babies is: 

  • 0-1 week (50-150 grams): 2-6 mls. every 2 hours 
  • 1-2 weeks (150-250 grams): 6-10 mls. every 2-3 hours 
  • 2-3 weeks (250-350 grams): 10-14 mls. every 3-4 hours 
  • 3-4 weeks (350-450 grams): 14-18 mls. every 4-5 hours 
  • 4-5 weeks (450-550 grams): 18-22 mls. every 5-6 hours 
  • 5-8 weeks (550-850 grams): Weaning, offer ample wet food or gruel every 6 hours 

Bottle baby kittens need to be weighed daily to make sure they are getting enough nutrition for healthy growth. For more specific information, check the feeding guidelines on the label of the kitten formula you are using, or talk to your veterinarian or a local animal shelter.

How Often Should Newborn Kittens Eat?  

During a newborn kitten’s first three weeks, feeding is something you will do often. How often do newborn kittens eat? During this time, they need to eat approximately every 2-4 hours, day and night.

By the time kittens reach 4-5 weeks, feedings will decrease to every 5-6 hours.

Newborn Kittens Feeding Schedule

While the newborn bottle-feeding schedule is intensive, it is also short-lived. By the time a newborn kitten reaches five weeks of age, you can start to mix a quality canned kitten food with the kitten formula and serve this mixture in a shallow food dish. Also offer lukewarm water in a second shallow dish to encourage hydration.

At this point, the feeding schedule will change to about four feedings a day. Be sure to check with your veterinarian before introducing solid food to make sure that the kitten, or kittens, in your care are ready for this transition.  

Helping Newborn Kittens Go to the Bathroom

Unlike newborn babies, newborn kittens need a little help learning to move their bowels and empty their bladders. Mother cats help stimulate this evacuation by licking the genital area. As a surrogate mother cat, you will need to fill this role too, with the help of a warm, moist washcloth, cotton swab or cotton ball.

After each feeding, gently massaging the kitten’s genital area will simulate a mother cat’s licking.

Caring for Newborn Kittens

Newborn kitten care week by week changes quickly: 

  • During weeks 1-3, a newborn kitten needs bottle feeding approximately every two-to-three hours. 
  • By weeks 3-5, the kitten will start to eat solid food along with kitten formula. 
  • By week 5, the kitten will be able to eat canned or dry kitten food exclusively, and you can slowly transition from kitten formula. 
  • By weeks 8-9, a healthy kitten should reach about two pounds and will be ready for spaying or neutering, vaccinations and any needed tests for infections. 

Basic Kitten Medical Care

By working with your veterinarian, you can ensure that your foster kitten, or kittens, get the right care at the right time. Whether you are fostering for a shelter or have found a kitten, make sure they are examined by a veterinarian right away.

In addition to eventual veterinary care, such as spaying/neutering and vaccinations, your veterinarian can immediately check for and treat issues, including: 

  • Fleas on newborn kittens if the kitten you are caring for was found abandoned 
  • Infection  
  • Other parasites

All of these can be serious health risks for a newborn kitten, or for other animals in your household, so it’s important to get treatment as soon as possible.

Socializing Kittens

While physical care and nutrition are vital benefits you provide when you foster newborn kittens, another important aspect of the care you provide is socialization.

Learning to interact with people and other pets at an early age can help kittens develop socially, which helps them become more adoptable and more likely to find happiness in forever homes. As foster pets, newborn kittens benefit from an environment where they have opportunities to socialize with you, plus other family, friends and pets on a daily basis.

This aspect of kitten development is so important to a kitten’s future that shelters such as the San Francisco SPCA and the Atlanta Humane Society have established “kitten kindergartens” for kittens between eight and 15 weeks of age. Classes are designed to make kittens more adoptable by helping them to interact with people and other cats through everyday interactions, such as playing, brushing, and even riding in cat carriers and in cars.

Fostering a Kitten Can Make a Lifetime of Difference 

As a kitten foster parent, you do much more than provide orphaned kitten care. By stepping into the role of a mother cat, you not only give a kitten a chance at life, but also the healthy start and socialization they need to live the best life possible.

While it might be hard to say goodbye after your fostering period is over, you’ll also have the satisfaction of knowing that you’ve given a kitten the chance at a happy future, in a forever home.

Learn more about fostering puppies and kittens with Petfinder.